NEW YORK -- The championship rings grew more ornate as the Yankees morphed into what would be referred to as "the team of the decade," but for those lucky enough to score more than one of those diamond-encrusted treasures, 1996 stands apart as one of the most special seasons in
NEW YORK -- The championship rings grew more ornate as the Yankees morphed into what would be referred to as "the team of the decade," but for those lucky enough to score more than one of those diamond-encrusted treasures, 1996 stands apart as one of the most special seasons in franchise history.
It was the birth of a dynasty, and on a day in which the Yankees peeked at a pair of power-hitting prospects in Tyler Austin and Aaron Judge, the organization rolled the clock back with an on-field ceremony reuniting key contributors of the club's 23rd World Series title.
"It was the first. You never forget your first," Derek Jeter said. "That was the beginning. The Yankees hadn't won in a long time. You remember the excitement in the stadium, you remember the excitement in the city. 'The Boss' [principal owner George M. Steinbrenner] said if we won, he'd keep us together, and we continued to win."
One by one, 32 members of the team that enjoyed a ticker-tape parade down Manhattan's Canyon of Heroes donned pinstripes emblazoned with their old uniform numbers, walking through a gate in center field prior to Saturday's game against the Rays before taking their positions on the field.
The "Core Four" of Jeter, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera drew some of the loudest ovations, as did Wade Boggs, David Cone, Dwight Gooden, Paul O'Neill, Darryl Strawberry, Bernie Williams and manager Joe Torre, who oversaw the comeback against the favored Braves in that year's Fall Classic.
Coming off a heartbreaking loss to the Mariners in the 1995 American League Division Series, those 1996 Yanks found their identity in a blend of proven veterans and promising rookies. They adopted a rallying cry from infielder Mariano Duncan, who coined the phrase, "We play today, we win today, that's it."
And they did plenty of that, finishing 92-70 before powering past the Orioles and Rangers in the playoffs. Aiming to end an 18-year title drought, Steinbrenner dismissed Buck Showalter and entrusted the lineup card to Torre, who hadn't yet compiled anything resembling what would be a Hall of Fame managerial resume.
As they broke the seal on a new training facility in Tampa, Fla., Williams remembers Torre telling his players, "You've got two rules with me. You play hard, and you be on time.' If you do that, I'll go through a wall for you. He did, and he gave us that confidence to know that if we did those things, we were going to be fine."
"I think people could see where things were going with this group," Pettitte said. "The organization always did a great job of bringing a good mix of players in. Even if they were a superstar on another team, I feel like Joe Torre did a wonderful job of making everyone jell together."
There were moves that bolstered the squad, bringing in players like Strawberry, Graeme Lloyd, Luis Sojo and Charlie Hayes, the third baseman who said he has not gone a single day without thinking of the foul pop he snared off the bat of Atlanta's Mark Lemke on Oct. 25, 1996.
Perhaps the most crucial moves were ones not made. Panicked by Jeter's questionable spring fielding, Steinbrenner suggested trading Rivera for infielder Felix Fermin. The dynasty nearly short-circuited before it began; Rivera would have been in Seattle and Jeter in Triple-A. Instead, Rivera set up for World Series MVP John Wetteland and Jeter was the AL Rookie of the Year Award winner.
"That was a gutsy call from The Boss," Rivera said. "Bernie was already in the big leagues, he was a few years ahead us, and to have four youngsters on the team -- that was a gutsy call. We were anxious and we wanted to do something, because we knew that we belonged in the big leagues."
While Steinbrenner had yearned for a title since 1978, it was the first for many staffers, including Brian Cashman, who joined the organization as an intern in 1986. He was serving as Bob Watson's assistant general manager on the night that Lemke fouled out.
"I remember basically the entire city turned upside down in euphoria," Cashman said. "After the game, we went down to a Yankee party at some bar in the Upper East Side, if I recall. People were on top of cars. It was just a complete block party of entire Manhattan."
Yet if the Yankees thought a championship gave them license to rest, Steinbrenner corrected that. Cashman recalls seeing The Boss on the morning of the parade, a vein bulging from his neck as he roared at a Yankees employee and several players.
"I remember him screaming, 'Get your wives off the float!'" Cashman said. "He had the wives stationed under the double decker buses and the players would be on the floats, not with wives. He was ballistic. I said to myself, 'He's a world champion, but he's a perfectionist. If he can't be happy now, I don't know if we'll ever make him happy.'"
The wives eventually won out, and there would be more parades to orchestrate.
"'96 set it all for us, because we expected to be there," Posada said. "You get to Spring Training and the first words out of Joe Torre's mouth were, 'We're going to the World Series.' Ever since he took over, that was the No. 1 goal -- work hard to get to the World Series."
As the 1996 club waited to be introduced Saturday, the conversations could have been filtered from a time warp across 161st Street. Someone suggested that it almost felt like they were getting ready to play, and you know what? Had they played today, they'd have won today, that's it.
"We feel like we're young again -- with the exception of Bernie," Jeter joked. "That's the great thing about playing sports and being part of a team. Even though it's been 20 years, when we're in the back waiting to come on the field, people are joking around and laughing, making fun of each other. It's like we never left."
Bryan Hoch has covered the Yankees for MLB.com since 2007. Follow him on Twitter @bryanhoch, on Facebook and read his MLBlog, Bombers Beat.